Immature and overwhelmed: UConn no match for Aari McDonald and Arizona in another Final Four loss

At one point, Aari McDonald was strutting through UConn’s nightmare. She made a 3-pointer, shrugged her shoulders, crossed her arms, stared into the distance with a certain bravado.

“I was thinking in that moment, ‘I’m the dog, I’m the stuff,’” McDonald said. “I was thinking, ‘Nobody can stop me.’ That’s what I was thinking.”

McDonald, a senior guard and a 5-foot-6 giant under the Final Four lights, was all that is required of a standout player on this stage Friday night. And she was right. Nobody could stop her.

McDonald took over the cavernous Alamodome, scoring 26 points and handcuffing Paige Bueckers as unheralded Arizona bounced a seemingly blinded UConn team from the San Antonio bubble with a 69-59 victory.

“She just dominated the entire game, start to finish,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “We pride ourselves on being pretty good at certain things. We had no answer for her.”

The Huskies never gave themselves a chance. Flat from the get-go. Never led. Trailed by 14. Didn’t look anything like the team that had found itself in January and rode resolve and personality to this point.

Maybe they were overconfident, as Christyn Williams suggested. Certainly they were embarrassed by their performance, Evina Westbrook said. They are both juniors. Everyone looked lost. No one looked confident.

When McDonald was done using a news conference to describe it from her perspective, she asked to make a final statement.

“My name is AIR-e, not ARR-e,” she said. “That’s all I wanted to say. Thank you.”

When was it the basketball world learned that Paige’s last name was pronounced BECK-ers and not BUKE-ers? A long, long time ago, well before her arrival in Storrs. Bueckers was brilliant this season, named Associated Press national player of the year this week, a household name for a couple years before that, the driving force behind much of what it took for the Huskies to reach yet another Final Four.

They were overwhelmed. Sometimes seniors look like seniors and freshmen look like freshmen, plain and simple. McDonald is 23 years old. Bueckers is 19. No matter the résumés, even the most recent body of work, playing in a national semifinal goes well beyond talent or attention.

UConn didn’t meet the moment. Bueckers spent the whole game with McDonald in her face. She finished with a respectable line — 18 points, six rebounds, four assists — but never found a rhythm. There was a wall of bodies to meet her every dribble. Nothing worked consistently.

McDonald, meanwhile, stomped all over the court and created open space. She made deep 3-pointers. She drove the lane. She drew fouls. She was shifty. She played defense like a hornet.

“I’ve said all along this year (that) we have a very immature group,” Auriemma said. “Not just young. We have a young group, but a very immature group. When we’re high and when we’re on top of the world, we think everything’s great. When things don’t go our way, there’s a poutiness about us, there’s a ‘feeling sorry for ourselves’ about us. You don’t win championships when you’re like that unless you get lucky.”

UConn wasn’t lucky. UConn wasn’t good.

Bueckers is probably the best player in the sport. Fellow freshman Aaliyah Edwards became a force inside. Azzi Fudd — pronounced A-zee — is the national high school player of the year set to highlight another remarkable recruiting class. So the future, as always and particularly now, is really bright.

On Friday, though, the lights were too bright. That can happen with a team so reliant on youth. The type of inspiring growth this team showed down the stretch of the season can always be one tip-off away from a fragile moment. It’s less equipped to uphold a standard while establishing it, anyway.

The Huskies were punched in the mouth. There isn’t a senior on the roster. It wasn’t just the freshmen who struggled. Junior Olivia Nelson-Ododa was 0 for 7 from the field and scored one point. McDonald just kept shooting and strutting and huffing and puffing … and she blew UConn away, making 7 of 17 shots and 8 of 11 free throws.

“She’s a really good player,” Bueckers said. “I think she just makes it hard for people to guard her because she’s so quick and she can score at all three levels. She’s a threat from anywhere. She’s a really good defender as well, just a really quick player on both sides of the ball.”

UConn has lost four Final Four semifinals in a row since winning four national championships in a row. Mississippi State’s Morgan William beat the overtime buzzer in 2017, ending UConn’s 111-game winning streak. Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale beat the overtime buzzer in 2018. Ogunbowale led another Notre Dame victory in 2019.

And McDonald stuck it to them in 2021.

“I do think that these games do tend to stay with you a little bit longer,” Auriemma said. “I would say, at least on my end, I’m going to be (determined to be) coaching in the Final Four next year. What my team is going to look like, I don’t know because we’ve got a whole bunch of new guys coming in.”

UConn, the top seed in the River Walk Region, never saw this coming. The Huskies played like a team that figured its Elite Eight victory over rugged Baylor was the real obstacle. They played like a team that might not have taken Arizona — a No. 3 seed that the NCAA even left out of a Final Four promotional video — seriously.

“If that’s the case, then it’s bad coaching by us and it’s a sign of immaturity on our team,” Auriemma said. “We need to grow up if we expect to be back here in the future.”

The Huskies do, of course. Look where they’ve been — to the Final Four 13 straight times. Look where they’re headed — probably to the preseason No. 1 ranking for 2021-22. A look back and a look ahead bring all those positive vibes that this year’s team harnessed for a long time.

Until, for a 40-minute stretch that ended its season, it looked lost while a 23-year-old woman owned the stage.

“I feel like I sort of took steps and have sort of seen what it takes to be great,” Bueckers said of what she learned this season. “We’re just pushing forward and trying to continue to get better. Just looking forward to getting back to work and winning a national championship next year.”